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When Fire Came for Kerry Lane

A photographer catalogs the residue of a single street in Santa Rosa’s hardest-hit neighborhood.

 

"It literally left nothing," Alex Farnum says, reflecting on the burned-out Santa Rosa streets he walked in the weeks following last fall’s wildfires, which destroyed 5,130 homes in Sonoma County and claimed 24 lives. “The fire burned so hot, there was just nothing left.” And yet there was: Perhaps nothing of great value, but buried in the rubble and ash were innumerable tiny clues into the lives of those who’d lost, in practically an instant, almost everything. “A man showed me where he’d left some change on his dresser, and all it was was just this big melted piece of metal. I think that’s what gave me this idea.”

That idea was to document a community in the initial—and messy—stages of recovery, still taking stock of what had been lost. Over five days, Farnum walked the most concentrated pocket of destruction: the length of Kerry Lane, in the heart of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, where the Tubbs Fire leveled 1,347 homes. Carrying a single strobe light, he walked up the driveway to each address on the block, selected a sample of debris essentially at random, and photographed it against a sheet of notebook paper. The result is part of Farnum’s ongoing Burn State project, a photographic record of communities in the aftermath of disaster. The images are mundane by design. “I wanted these to not get too emotionally driven,” he says. “I wanted them to be a little more objective about something so profound…. It’s emotional, but I didn’t want to push that. That would feel almost exploitative.”

Some of the images are recognizable, and essentially personal: a pair of burned persimmons, collected beside the husk of a resident’s fallen front yard fruit tree; a rosary found sitting in a driveway; a column of text from a single magazine page. Still, Farnum says he prefers the most abstractlooking examples—“the ones that make a viewer ask what this really is.”

As the months have progressed since the fire, the raw pain of disaster has given way to reflection, and now to action. In January, construction crews began to rebuild the first home in Coffey Park; they expect it to be completed by April. Permits for other rebuilds are currently being issued, and the hard work of raising a neighborhood is at last at hand. From the rubble and soot and charred-out ephemera will come, soon, a community. 

 

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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